For her first Christmas album, Blige goes big.
With the help of super-producer David Foster — who has handled the Christmas releases of such mammoth-voiced luminaries as Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion and Josh Groban — Blige spares no musical flourish. And, through it all, she manages to maintain the very Mary-ness that has made her such a sassy R&B success for two decades.
Blige conjures her inner Aretha on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which is filled with her trademark vocal runs and propped up by a full, soulful arrangement. Then she adroitly reins herself in for “The Christmas Song,” which features a gliding jazz guitar solo from Andrea Varady.
What Foster brings to these dozen songs is an ear for both originality and aural grandness. Of course we’ve all heard “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” 7,000 times, but this bass-propelled, jazz-scat rendition actually escalates it to a new level of freshness.
Likewise Blige’s decision to include a sumptuous version of “My Favorite Things” and a duet with Barbra Streisand (with some help from trumpeter Chris Botti) on “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which is every bit as lush as a Disney ballad should be.
Her duets with British pop singer Jessie J (“Do You Hear What I Hear”) and Marc Anthony (“Noche De Paz/Silent Night”) cap a triumphant first attempt in the Christmas genre.
Kelly Clarkson, “Wrapped in Red”
First marriage, first baby on the way, first holiday album. It’s been an eventful year for one of the most successful “American Idol” alums.
As with most of her output, Clarkson shimmers and belts with fervor, emotion always dripping from her voice.
She handles the customary tunes (“White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) with tenderness, but two of the four originals (which Clarkson co-wrote) — the title track and “Underneath the Tree” — are highlights,
“Underneath the Tree” has “All I Want for Christmas is You” potential. Like that 1994 smash from Mariah Carey, “Underneath” manages to sound classic with giddy hand claps, ‘60s-era instrumentation and Phil Spector-ish production, yet is still completely modern.
A duet with Ronnie Dunn on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” sometimes struggles to find the right balance between Sinatra-esque lounge suaveness and country twang, but her collaboration with Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood on “Silent Night” is beautifully haunting.
Susan Boyle, “Home for Christmas”
On her second Christmas album, the unlikely British superstar with the angelic pipes sticks to the styles and the songs you would expect.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” unfolds with a pleasant, old-fashioned lilt with female background singers straight out of the Lawrence Welk era, and on “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Boyle’s crystalline voice effortlessly nails the high notes.
Sometimes, though, her voice is so smooth and flawless that it lacks emotion. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is one of the most melancholy offerings in the holiday canon, yet Boyle’s version is strangely devoid of any sense of wistfulness.
She fares better on the original song “Miracle Hymn” from the new movie, “The Christmas Candle.” It’s a soaring ballad anchored by shimmering church organ, and Boyle sounds comfortable and natural as she whispers some words.
Her duet with Johnny Mathis on “When a Child is Born,” which he topped the British charts with in 1976, is a natural pairing targeted directly at Boyle’s demographic – and that’s just smart business.
Il Volo, “Buon Natale: The Christmas Album”
The cutie-pies in this Italian pop-opera trio continue to prove their undeniable talent.
Their solid grasp of English infuses “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with a woozy ache, and their sprightly medley of “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is wisely backed by a traditional big band arrangement to enforce familiarity.
While the threesome harmonizes with startling clarity, just try not to be impressed by baritone Gianluca Ginoble on “O Holy Night.”
The group also stays true to tradition not only by keeping their native language in the album title (“Buon Natale” means Merry Christmas) but also by tackling “Silent Night” in its original German incarnation, “Stille Nacht.”
Ginoble and tenors Piero Barone and Ignazio Boschetto pull in pal Pia Toscano for “The Christmas Song,” which is given a pensive gloss thanks to some French horn. The duet will go a long way to remind people about Toscano, an “American Idol” also-ran who deserves her own spotlight.
All around, “Buon Natale: The Christmas Album” is bellissimo.
“Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas”
At some point, the dynasty around the Robertson family and their Duck Commander business will dissipate.
But for now, who can blame the stars of the crazily high-rated A&E show “Duck Dynasty” for cashing in? Since its late October release, the clan’s Christmas album has sold more than 200,000 copies, so it’s hard to argue with their saturation of the pop culture market.
There are certainly goofy moments — Willie Robertson wrote the opening “Ragin’ Cajun Redneck Christmas,” a rollicking harmonica and boogie-woogie piano romp that eventually leads to a thoughtful message. But Missy Robertson’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is perfectly pretty and Sadie Robertson’s duet with Alison Krauss on “Away in a Manager” (prefaced by a Scripture reading) contains a sweet rustic quality.
Surely fans of the show will find something to love about Luke Bryan singing with Willie Robertson, Phil, Uncle Si, Jase and Jep on the banjo-driven “Hairy Christmas,” which suggests that folks “round up your redneck family.”
— Georgia's 2011 "American Idol" finalist Lauren Alaina releases her version of "Grown Up Christmas List" on iTunes Tuesday. The song is part of the 26th anniversary of the Special Olympics' "A Very Special Christmas" series.
— "Glee: The Music The Christmas Album, Volume 4" is available digitally and arrives exclusively in Walmart stores on Tuesday . This year's holiday offering from the musical Fox TV show includes the Glee cast romping through "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)."
— North Point Christmas, "Let There Be Light" is the follow-up to the 2010 "North Point Christmas" album from the Atlanta-based North Point Ministries and features 11 classics such as "What Child is This?" "I Heard the Bells" and "Hallelujah" performed by singers Seth Condrey, Todd Fields, Casey Darnell and other worship leaders from North Point.